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West Haven News

Posted on: June 9, 2023

Family of British war ‘hero’ pays respects at city burial site

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PHOTO — West Haven Mayor Nancy R. Rossi, right, presents William Campbell descendants George F. Campbell, 70, and his daughter, Miriam Campbell, 17, with a proclamation declaring “Adjutant William Campbell Day” in West Haven on Thursday, June 8. The Campbells, of the Pollokshields suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, paid their respects at the final resting place of their revered fifth- and sixth-generation grandfather on “Monument Path” in Allingtown. On July 5, 1779, Campbell, a Scotsman serving in the British army, died hours after saving the Rev. Noah Williston of West Haven’s First Congregational Church from certain death at the hands of British soldiers and Hessian Jager mercenaries during the British invasion of New Haven. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

WEST HAVEN, June 9, 2023 — The fifth-generation grandson and sixth-generation granddaughter of a “heroic” British army officer who died in West Haven during the Revolutionary War visited the city of his final resting place to pay their respects Thursday afternoon, June 8.

George F. Campbell, 70, and his daughter, Miriam Campbell, 17, joined West Haven leaders to retrace the steps of their greatest of grandfathers, Adjutant William Campbell, who died hours after saving the village minister’s life during the British invasion of Colonial New Haven 244 years ago.

“William Campbell is one of the first true ‘American’ heroes and is revered by West Haven,” Mayor Nancy R. Rossi said. “To this day, the adjutant is the only known enemy combatant recognized by the very American town he invaded with both a monument and principal avenue named in his honor.”

On the sultry morning of July 5, 1779, the British army invaded New Haven Harbor in an amphibious assault from a fleet of 48 ships, with 1,500 troops coming ashore at West Haven’s “Old Field” under Maj. Gen. George Garth and 1,100 troops landing in East Haven under Maj. Gen. William Tryon.

During their daylong visit, the Campbells, of the Pollokshields suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, were accompanied by City Historian Jon E. Purmont, members of the West Haven Historical Society, the Rev. E. Carl Howard of the First Congregational Church and author Peter J. Malia, a native of West Haven and an authority on the community’s history.

Malia helped narrate the invasion and sequence of actions that occurred on that fateful day.

The history lesson tour, held on a breezy, overcast day, trekked from the West Haven Green, where the Scotsman William Campbell had spared the Rev. Noah Williston of the First Congregational Church, to the adjutant’s “approximate” gravesite on “Monument Path,” near Route 1 in Allingtown.

The 90-minute tour culminated in a reception at the Historical Society’s Poli House headquarters, at 686 Savin Ave. across from the Green.

At the 18th-century cemetery next to First Church on the Green, the Campbells and city leaders, including Howard, the church’s current pastor, paid their respects to Williston, the church’s 1779 pastor.

At the downtown graveyard, the group also paid homage to another local war hero, militiaman Thomas Painter.

In the overnight hours of July 4-5, 1779, Painter, who at the time was 19 and perched on present-day Bradley Point with other members of the night patrol under Capt. Phineas Bradley, observed the approaching British fleet maneuvering into position and alerted townspeople of the impending invasion.

Later, he stood on the beach and fired shots at the troops as they rowed toward shore near present-day Oak Street, only to flee when he realized his attempts were in vain, according to Malia, who now lives in Cheshire.

Like Campbell, Painter, who died in 1847, is renowned for his ties to the American Revolution. The so-called Paul Revere of West Haven, his silhouette — peering through a spyglass as a British ship approaches — has adorned the community’s seal since 1935.

The Campbells and city leaders arrived shortly before 3 p.m. at William Campbell’s gravesite, a strip of land off Pruden Street that is marked with a gray granite monument, surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence, and adorned with a wreath and a Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom. The wooded path is bordered by a stone wall.

Purmont served as the master of ceremonies, and Malia told fascinating stories about William Campbell the officer and Campbell the man.

After a moment of reflection, Rossi gave the Campbells the royal treatment, welcoming them to the city that has extolled William Campbell for his random act of kindness.

The mayor then presented them with a two-page proclamation declaring “Adjutant William Campbell Day” in West Haven.

“The entire community of West Haven joins me in extending our humble gratitude to the descendants of a noble man who has touched the lives of so many ‘Westies,’” said Rossi, reading the proclamation. “The Campbell family will always have a home in West Haven.”

Rossi pointed out that Campbell Avenue, which runs through the heart of West Haven, has been a vital commercial and transportation artery since it was christened by townspeople in 1874.

George Campbell graciously thanked the city and shared how he discovered his ancestor.

“The first thing I wanted to do was come here and pay my respects to him and pay my respects to the people who have lived here down the centuries,” said Campbell, who was flanked by a gathering of residents and city officials, including Councilman Ronald M. Quagliani, D-at large, and Human Resources Commissioner Beth A. Sabo.

In the early 2000s, Sabo, then the city’s public works commissioner, oversaw the gravesite’s fencing, sidewalk, landscaping, staircase and parking improvements.

Resident Peter Bonewicz, whose family home is across from the gravesite on Wade Street, gave Campbell a letter his father received from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II during the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. In the letter, the queen commended Casimer Bonewicz, now deceased, for maintaining the historic site at the time.

William Campbell’s humanitarian action during the invasion is one of the earliest examples of mercy by an American adversary on American soil.

At the time, he served as an ensign and adjutant in King George III’s elite British army unit, the Scots Guards’ 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment of Foot.

“The Scottish officer’s merciful act had occurred during the Connecticut theater of the American War of Independence and has carved out a place for itself in the enduring story of West Haven, the state’s youngest city, yet one of its oldest communities,” according to the mayoral proclamation.

During the onslaught, Williston, an outspoken revolutionary, broke his leg while trying to escape his captors, according to accounts.

British soldiers and Hessian Jager mercenaries, hired out to the British by their German sovereigns, rushed at the aged minister with drawn bayonets, but the young adjutant intervened, allegedly saying, “We make war on soldiers, not civilians.”

Campbell then ordered the troops to carry Williston to the parsonage and summoned the regimental surgeon to set his leg.

According to Malia, the adjutant was perhaps moved to save the clergyman’s life, because as a Scottish Highlander, he would have witnessed as a young boy the massacre of innocent civilians during the Jacobite rising in Scotland.

After Williston’s ordeal, the redcoats and Hessians treated him with the utmost respect and kindness, according to Malia.

Campbell is also credited with keeping the troops in good order during their march through the village of West Haven and reportedly had two soldiers arrested after a woman accused them of stealing her jewelry, according to accounts.

Until Williston’s death in 1811, he allegedly celebrated the anniversary of Campbell’s extraordinary act of compassion by delivering a sermon, Matthew 5:7: “Blessed Are the Merciful.”

In 1891, the Beatitude was inscribed on the existing memorial to Campbell: “Adjutant William Campbell Fell During the British Invasion of New Haven, July 5, 1779. Blessed Are the Merciful.”

Hours after sparing Williston, Campbell was shot in the chest atop Milford Hill in present-day Allingtown on his way to New Haven by a local farmer turned defender, according to Malia.

At the time of the invasion, Campbell was described as “tall and elegant in person and dress” and was likely a conspicuous target, according to accounts.

The mortally wounded adjutant, who was married with a young family, was carried by sympathetic townspeople to the farmhouse of a nearby family. As he lay dying, he allegedly won the hearts of the family with his patience and gentleness, just as he had the appreciation of townsfolk for his earlier act of mercy.

According to Malia, Campbell’s body was wrapped in a blanket, placed on a sheep rack, and transported to a hastily dug grave on the north side of the Post Road in a hollow by the edge of the woods. An adjacent strip of land was donated by resident John Prudden.

In October 1831, a small stone bearing the inscription “Campbell, 1779” was erected by resident John Warner Barber to mark the adjutant’s approximate gravesite, but it was destroyed by vandals on Oct. 22, 1872.

According to the proclamation: “The stone was followed by this granite monument, which was erected by the New Haven Colony Historical Society on July 4, 1891. This permanent memorial marks Campbell’s approximate final resting place in the center of ‘Monument Path,’ where we solemnly stand today, June 8, 2023.”

Rossi, reading the proclamation, said, “On this sacred ground, we pay our respects and we give thanks to Adjutant William Campbell.”

The gravesite has been deeded to the West Haven Historical Society and is maintained by the University of New Haven, which skirts the site.

According to Malia, Campbell’s personal dressing case remains his sole-surviving relic and is in the possession of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, formerly the New Haven Colony Historical Society.

On July 5, 1987, a memorial stone sponsored by the West Haven Historical Society was placed on the northwest corner of the Green, where the adjutant saved the pastor’s life 208 years earlier.

With the 6-foot-4 George Campbell looking on, Rossi closed the proclamation by underscoring William Campbell’s lasting legacy in the community.

“The legend of Adjutant William Campbell is steeped in oral tradition and is enshrined in memory. It reminds us all that even in times of war, humanity is our most powerful weapon.”

Rossi continued lauding the unlikeliest of heroes.

“In the centuries that have passed, the Campbell name has come to symbolize integrity and goodness, strength and greatness. His story is our story: a triumph of the human spirit and a beacon of hope for all people.”

For the complete story of Campbell and the invasion, read Malia’s book “Visible Saints,” West Haven, Connecticut, 1648-1798.”

— MICHAEL P. WALSH, Public Relations Information Coordinator

Campbell Family Visits Gravesite 033 II (Small)

West Haven Mayor Nancy R. Rossi, right, presents William Campbell descendants George F. Campbell, 70, and his daughter, Miriam Campbell, 17, with a proclamation declaring “Adjutant William Campbell Day” in West Haven on Thursday, June 8. The Campbells, of the Pollokshields suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, paid their respects at the final resting place of their revered fifth- and sixth-generation grandfather on “Monument Path” in Allingtown. On July 5, 1779, Campbell, a Scotsman serving in the British army, died hours after saving the Rev. Noah Williston of West Haven’s First Congregational Church from certain death at the hands of British soldiers and Hessian Jager mercenaries during the British invasion of New Haven. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

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West Haven Mayor Nancy R. Rossi pauses beside a red, white and blue wreath with George and Miriam Campbell at the Allingtown gravesite of their ancestor, British Adjutant William Campbell. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

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Author Peter J. Malia, a native of West Haven and an authority on the community’s history, tells fascinating stories about William Campbell the officer and Campbell the man. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

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Michael P. Walsh, West Haven’s public relations information coordinator, pauses with George and Miriam Campbell at Adjutant William Campbell’s gravesite. (City Photo/Peter J. Malia)

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The Rev. E. Carl Howard of West Haven’s First Congregational Church and Miriam and George Campbell pay their respects at the West Haven Green gravesite of the Rev. Noah Williston, the church minister whose life British Adjutant William Campbell spared on July 5, 1779. Until Williston’s death in 1811, he allegedly celebrated the anniversary of Campbell’s extraordinary act of humanity by delivering a sermon, Matthew 5:7: “Blessed Are the Merciful.” (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

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The tall headstone marking the West Haven Green gravesite of Revolutionary War militiaman Thomas Painter, who died in 1847. In the overnight hours of July 4-5, 1779, Painter, who at the time was 19 and perched on present-day Bradley Point, observed an approaching fleet of 48 British army ships and alerted townspeople of the impending invasion. Like British Adjutant William Campbell, Painter is renowned for his ties to the American Revolution. The so-called Paul Revere of West Haven, his silhouette — peering through a spyglass as a British ship approaches — has adorned the community’s seal since 1935. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)

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